Once upon a time in Munich, the locals wanted to build a cathedral, but money was tight. So an architect named Jorg von Halsbach made a deal with the Devil, promising to construct the building in his honor, in exchange for money to complete the project. Indeed, von Halsbach drafted plans that were more sepulchral than spectacular. Vowing to embrace the dark and block the light, he stayed true to the late Gothic style: dark wooden doors pointing skyward anchor the building and invite guests to step inside, but only if they dare. No gargoyles dart from the exterior red brick walls, but neither do cherubs.
Standing in the vestibule, the Devil was pleased. As he had insisted, no windows could be seen, only the tall stone columns standing single-file before the altar. But a step forward revealed he had been duped. Poised between each set of columns was a stained glass window dappled in reds, blues, and greens and glowing defiantly, penetrated by light made more striking by the relative darkness surrounding it. When the devil saw the streams of light invading the sanctuary, he stomped his foot in anger. To this very day, tourists from all over the world place their feet in the hollowed out space in the stone floor that bore the signature of his wrath.
I like to think of the image of refracted light darting between stone pillars as a metaphor for our modern world because, clearly, English majors can never leave well enough alone and appreciate the “thing” itself without trying to extract even more value from it. We’re greedy like that. I’m greedy because in a world filled with ugliness projected around the clock, of small pettiness made manifold and manifold injustice normalized, the greatest act of defiance is to carve out a space for light: not rainbow light infused with pixie dust, but hard won light manufactured by chaffed hands wielding dry sticks to create warmth: the product of faith and friction. A hallelujah broken but spoken anyway.
Emerson warned that “though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we will find it not.” Sometimes beauty is easy to spot. We see it and grab it like so many plastic eggs just waiting to be culled from a patch of grass and assembled in a woven basket. We reflect the light instinctively, effortlessly. Its radiance bounces off us in words and actions, in the hum of anticipation and celebration. Sometimes, though, beauty is buried beneath the rubble of life: beneath regrets, grievances, struggles, and demands, beneath the disparity between our ideal and our reality.
During these times, when the light is most needed and hardest won, I strive to cultivate the mantra of “yes and” and banish the lament of “yes but…” Yes, the world looks dark and the news seems harrowing, and still “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1: 5). Yes, the future feels uncertain and the present tenuous, and yet we are promised “hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29: 11). The “and” does not negate the weight of the darkness, nor does it force us to cover our ears and close our eyes – actions that, in a world in which suffering abounds – would constitute a failure of empathy and humanity. The “and” does, however, hold space for polarity, for opposing circumstances and reactions, for mourning and for resolve to carry a candle that burns quietly, defiantly, its light rendered brighter by the backdrop of night.